"If a new fad for the Regency age causes her to win new readers, then that is enough," wrote Stephen Fry in a spirited appraisal of the author Georgette Heyer for The Guardian in 2021. It was, of course, in regards to Bridgerton. Some readers expressed sadness that Heyer's numerous and wildly-loved novels – she published bestselling 52 novels and numerous short stories – remained very much on the shelf.
Heyer, also an accomplished writer of detective fiction, essentially created the historical romance genre. They're the perfect sort of book to prescribe yourself as a pick-me-up, restoring good spirits without ever resorting to artificial gloop. While her name, and specialty as an author of particularly good Regency romances, may pitch her as a contemporary of Jane Austen, Heyer died only in 1974, aged 71. However, her forensic attention to detail and research mean that every reader finds themselves completely at home in a world far from their own, yet instantly recognisable. Her heroines, while rooted in such detail, are firmly 20th-century in outlook and spirit.
Filled with rollicking good plot, delectable heroes, and witty heroines, her books are compulsively enjoyable. Jilly Cooper has long championed Heyer (the smoulderingly attractive Bas Baddingham is at one point given the ultimate accolade, "He looked the perfect Georgette Heyer hero"), while anyone suffering Bridgerton withdrawal would be well-advised to feast on Heyer's lengthy back catalogue.
What is the best Georgette Heyer?
There are several Heyer books clearly circling the top, but in terms of 'best' you'll get a different title depending on who you ask. “Social media has really encouraged people to come out and say, ‘I’m a proud Heyer reader,’” says Jennifer Kloester, author of Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller. “There’s also a lot of people who love modern regencies who are now beginning to discover her and realise they’ve got these fabulous books and wonderful reading experiences ahead of them.”
Here are our top picks to get you started. Be warned: once you start reading, they're very addictive...
Georgette Heyer uses her distance from the period to examine scandal, while her eye for social accuracy means her books can feel significantly closer to the bone than we would think in comparison to our own social moral code. At 25, the beautiful Venetia Lanyon has grown up squirrelled away from society by her father, with only her younger brother, Aubrey, for company. She runs their family estate in the absence of their elder brother. When the infamous rake Lord Damerel moves in to the property next door, his kindness to Aubrey leads to them all becoming great friends – and to Damerel and Venetia finding a mental match in the other. When Venetia learns the cause of her father's overprotective behaviour, she sets about taking charge of her life and happiness.
Heyer's later novels focus on romances among older couples, with a younger pairing as a parallel. Since her parents' death, Frederica Merriville has been in charge of her coterie of younger siblings, of whom her sister, Charis, is a noted beauty. Frederica, herself accepting that she is likely too old to marry, moves the family to London and taps up a distant relative, the glamorous and easily bored Marquis of Alverstoke, to act as their sponsor into society. Unruly dogs, and equally unruly small brothers, combine to shock the Marquis into action – as much to irritate his ghastly sisters as to spend more time with the disarmingly frank young woman claiming his patronage for her sister. A glorious romp.
The Grand Sophy (1950)
Extreme competence to an almost magical degree, coupled with laugh out loud dialogue, makes this so nearly fantastic. A London family beset by financial woes, and the impending marriage of the sour son and heir to an even sourer heiress, get a jolt when their cousin is sent to live with them. Sophy needs a home while her father travels further afield, yet when she arrives the reality is far from a poor relation and rather an elegant and thoroughly competent Mary Poppins type. Sophy's experience running her diplomat father's household soon extends to tidying up her relations' difficulties.
A note: This sublime romp comes to a screeching halt during a scene when Sophy goes to see a moneylender. The short jolt of Heyer's antisemitism is laced throughout her books, and leaves a thoroughly unpleasant taste here, to put it mildly. Her historical accuracy did not extend to her Jewish characters, which is particularly egregious considering the time at which she was writing.
The Black Moth (1921)
Published when she was 19, Heyer's first novel was written to entertain her brother, Boris, a haemophiliac who was often unwell. Having taken the blame for a cheating scandal years before, Lord Jack Carstares has turned to highway robbery. When he rescues a young noblewoman from being abducted by the evil Duke of Andover, known as 'Devil', he finds himself drawn towards his old life. Her 1926 book These Old Shades was originally intended as a sequel, but she renamed many of the characters (such as Justin "Satanas" Alastair, Duke of Avon) and the title referred to their being but loosely related to the originals.
The Toll-Gate (1954)
Combining Heyer's genius for detective fiction and romance in one divine go, this is also a rare outing for a male protagonist. Captain Jack Staple has returned from the Napoleonic Wars and is deeply bored. When a chance encounter sees him ending up as babysitter for the young son of a missing toll collector, and filling in that role, Captain Staple soon finds himself in the middle of a murder mystery that will bring in highwaymen, the London police, and some treasure – as well as the charms of the daughter of the local gentry.
Regency Buck (1935)
Heyer's first novel set in the Regency rather than Georgian period, Regency Buck sees heiress Judith Taverner and her impetuous younger brother Peregrine travelling south to spend the season with their guardian, Lord Worth. Judith is a sensation, but Lord Worth turns out to be intensely annoying and turns down every proposal she receives, while Peregrine (the buck of the title) gets himself into endless scrapes that eventually risk Judith's reputation as well as his own.
These Old Shades (1926)
Justin Alastair, the infamous Duke of Avon, is determined to ruin his enemy, the Comte de Saint-Vire. When he stumbles upon a teenage boy who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Comte, the Duke thinks he has found the solution – but the boy has secrets of his own. The Avon family and their rackety descendants return in Devil's Cub and An Infamous Army.
Heyer took the success of this novel, despite being released during a general strike and thus without any fanfare, as reason enough to rather blissfully refuse to do a stitch more publicity for her publishers. In Jane Aiken Hodge's biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer, she quotes a letter in which Heyer explains archly, "as for being photographed at Work or in my Old World Garden that is the type of publicity which I find nauseating and quite unnecessary." Ultimately, her books – over thirty million sold worldwide – spoke for themselves.